The Natural Georgia Series: The Fire Forest

Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass Ecosystem

Design by Lenz Design, Decatur, Georgia.

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers: Prospects for Recovery

By R. Todd Engstrom

At the time of European settlement of Georgia, the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) was a common bird in the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystem of the Coastal Plain and in shortleaf (P. echinata) and loblolly pine (P. taeda) forests of the Piedmont. The decline of the woodpecker accelerated in the twentieth century as the still extensive pine forests were virtually mined throughout the Southeast. Georgia was no different. Causes of decline of the woodpecker paralleled the causes of decline of the longleaf pine ecosystem: conversion of land from forest to agriculture, urbanization, fragmentation, reduction in the use of fire, and replacement of longleaf pine with other pine species for short-rotation tree farming. The population of red-cockaded woodpeckers in Georgia is probably only five percent of its level prior to European settlement, and the woodpecker has been on the federal endangered species list since 1970. Although much forest regenerated, removal of the original pine forests had a devastating effect on the red-cockaded woodpecker because of its unusual life history.

The red-cockaded woodpecker depends on old living pine trees. The woodpecker makes its cavities that it uses for roosting and nesting in these types of trees. Old trees have more heartwood in relation to sapwood than do younger trees. Resin flow, a defensive response of pine trees to wounding, occurs through the sapwood-a layer of living wood closest to the bark. Resin flow can halt invasion by pathogens and beetles. Heartwood, located in the center of the tree, does not conduct resin. Animals, like the red-cockaded woodpecker, that excavate cavities in living pine trees must overcome the resin-flow defense of the sapwood to get to the heartwood. The woodpecker also prefers old trees (in longleaf, 90 years old or older), because they can be infected with redheart fungus (Phellinus pinii). Redheart does not kill the tree, but it does digest the non-living heartwood cells, causing them to degenerate and soften, which makes cavity excavation easier.

The resin-flow defense is formidable. On rare occasions, even the red-cockaded woodpecker gets stuck and dies in the sticky resins that ooze from the cavity entrance. The woodpecker turns the tree's defensive system into a defense of its own. The woodpecker makes small wounds, called "resin wells," in the tree around its cavity. Resin from these wells creates a barrier to some nest predators, such as rat snakes (Elaphe spp.). The whitish wash of resin, a distinctive sign of woodpecker activity, can be seen through the open pine forests from considerable distances.

The resin flow and dense living wood dramatically slow cavity excavation. It may take the red-cockaded woodpecker 1 to 10 years to complete a single cavity! Understandably, the woodpecker does not easily relinquish its investments; it stays close to home.

A typical day in the life of a red-cockaded woodpecker begins when it leaves its roost cavity at dawn and joins other members of its group. Only one individual roosts in a cavity; and several cavity trees in an area are called a "cluster." The group of woodpeckers, often an extended family, forages together primarily on arthropods on living pine trees over a relatively large territory (50 to 1,000 acres). The birds return to the cluster at dusk and each woodpecker goes back into its own cavity to roost for the night.

The woodpecker's attachment to its cavity is most strongly demonstrated in the breeding system. The female red-cockaded woodpecker usually lays her eggs in the cavity of the breeding male. After leaving the nest, young male red-cockaded woodpeckers mostly stay with their parents in their natal territory where they become "helpers," and young females almost always search for vacancies in nearby groups. The strategy of the helpers is to inherit the wealth of their parents-the cavities-instead of striking out for new horizons.

The dependence of the red-cockaded woodpecker on old living pine trees has put the species on a collision course with human beings, who have made drastic changes to the land. Most of the woodpeckers that remain in Georgia (approximately 651 groups) are found on federal land: 53 percent are found on Fort Benning and Fort Stewart, 11 percent on national wildlife refuges, and 2 percent on national forests. Over a quarter of the population is found on the quail-hunting plantations in the Red Hills of southwest Georgia, and 7 percent are found on other private lands. Less than 1 percent of the total remaining population of red-cockaded woodpeckers is found on state-owned lands.

The number of red-cockaded woodpeckers on private land in Georgia outside the Red Hills has declined steadily. A recent study indicated the woodpecker population shrank by 72 percent on these private lands in the 1980s. Elimination of current and future cavity trees, degradation of foraging habitat, inadequate use of fire, and population fragmentation were all cited as contributing factors. The 7 percent (approximately 46 groups) of the red-cockaded woodpecker groups currently found on private land in Georgia outside of the Red Hills are scattered widely over 35 different counties. Likelihood of long-term survival of these small fragmented populations is small.

The prospect of having red-cockaded woodpeckers on their property has caused concern- primarily fear of losing the ability to harvest older timber-among some landowners. To address this issue, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources drafted a conservation plan designed to give choices to landowners who have woodpeckers (or may have woodpeckers in the future). One innovative option is called "Safe Harbor," which is an agreement between the landowner and state government. It calls for the landowner to establish the current population of woodpeckers on his or her property by conducting a survey. If the woodpecker population increases and the landowner chooses to change management of the forest, the landowner is only responsible for maintaining the baseline population-not the increase. This voluntary agreement enables landowners to retain flexibility in forest management and enhance woodpecker habitat simultaneously. Another option, the conservation easement, is an agreement in which the owner receives substantial tax breaks and continued use of the land for traditional purposes in return for development rights. Yet another possibility is translocation of highly isolated red-cockaded woodpeckers to land that will be managed for conservation purposes in perpetuity. For more information on the conservation plan, contact the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Nongame-Endangered Species Wildlife Program, Route 5 Box 180, Forsyth, Georgia 31029.

This is a critical time for conservation of the red-cockaded woodpecker. Georgia-with about 14 percent of the total population-is important to recovery of the species. Researchers know enough about the life history of this bird to ensure its preservation though excellent stewardship of private, state, and federal forests. Conservation of the red-cockaded woodpecker will serve well the larger goal of conservation of the endangered longleaf pine ecosystem in Georgia.

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